Karl Attkins, really putting himself out there at Shipsterns. Photo: Tildesley

Karl Attkins, really putting himself out there at Shipsterns. Photo: Tildesley

By Todd Prodanovich

It was a brisk afternoon at one of the heaviest lineups in the world. After surfing all morning, Kelly Slater, Mark Mathews, and Laurie Towner were relaxing on the boat, watching massive barrels thunder across the shelf at Shipsterns Bluff. The wind had switched in an unfortunate direction, and the crew was ready to call it a day.

That's when 23-year-old Sydney native Karl Attkins decided he was in the mood for one more. But this time, Attkins wanted to be towed into a mutant tube as naked as the day he was born.

"I don't know why, but it just felt like the right thing to do at the time," says Attkins. "I didn't go there intending to surf it naked, but something just clicked in my head when we were in the boat. I asked one of the boys if they would whip me into one, and then I just ripped off my wettie. Everyone on the boat kind of freaked out a little bit, but it just felt right."

Like the Bermuda Triangle, Shipsterns Bluff may be subject to strange forces that are not entirely understood by science. Even though the break is a terrifying phenomenon already, those who ride it are often compelled to spontaneous acts of insanity that make the experience all the more challenging. Cases in point: Mikey Brennan was once captured chugging beers in the barrel, while local charger Marti Paradisis rushed sets wearing a Santa Claus outfit and has even ditched his board entirely to bodysurf the slab at its most menacing.

"It's a super challenging wave—maybe one of the hardest to surf in the world," says Attkins. "But it gets a lot of swell, so it's pretty consistent. The local guys surf it so much that they come up with weird, funny ideas for how to make it more interesting. Plus Shipsterns is such a crazy wave, maybe it just brings that out in people."

In a blinding flash of pasty skin, Attkins got up to speed, let go of the tow rope, and found himself in a world of hurt. As he started his drop, a massive staircase presented itself. He took the first step in stride, but on the second he faltered, and like an aquatic catapult, the wave pictured here sucked him into the lip and tossed him into a dark, spinning abyss. While held under, he would have had plenty of time to consider his recent decisions, and the potential embarrassment of drowning naked in front of an audience. But instead Attkins' mind went elsewhere.

"When I was underwater it was kind of warm because I was getting thrown around so much," says Attkins. "Before that I was pretty cold, definitely cold enough to be wearing a 4/3 and some booties. After that wave warmed me up a bit, I felt alright and got back out for another one."

Matt Whitehead on the road, he who said the only thing more romanticized than romance is travel. Photo: Whitehead

Matt Whitehead on the road, he who said the only thing more romanticized than romance is travel. Photo: Whitehead

By Janna Irons

Matt Whitehead sat on the beach in Indonesia on the verge of heat stroke. He hated the crowds and the sweating, and decided, rather irrationally, that he was going to Alaska—the coldest, emptiest place he could think of. From there, he thought, he would ride a motorbike to Chile, and surf empty waves all along the way.

The entire plan might seem absurd except that Matt had already completed an even more preposterous surf adventure just months prior: a 5,000-mile trek by bicycle from the east coast of Canada to the west coast, then down to Mainland Mexico. It was filled with all that you'd expect from a journey that far-reaching, though Matt brushed off any sentimental notions of life on the road. "The only thing more romanticized than romance is travel," he laughed. He recounted getting his bike stolen in San Francisco and spending months scouring flea markets until he finally tracked it down and could continue on. He's had flat tires and close calls with fast cars and was even robbed at gunpoint in Mexico. "My friend and I were asleep in a tent near Ensenada one night when I heard someone rustling around outside," he recalls. "I sprung up and chased them down a dry river bed. I saw the guy had my camera bags and he picked up a rock to try and hit me and I thought, 'Good, that means he doesn't have a gun.' But then, out of nowhere, his friend came up behind me pointing his gun at me and yelling in Spanish. So that was the end of my camera."

Matt's been traveling since he was 18, and has somehow managed to fund his adventures with odd jobs for over a decade. "It's normally manual labor-type jobs," he says, "but I've done everything from working in a mental hospital to working in a bubble wrap factory. I'll do just about anything. One time, I was in a coffee shop and overheard a guy talking about needing someone to chop some wood. I said 'Well, I need to work,' and he gave me the job. Normally people just offer it to me. It's never good work, but it's money, and I need money to keep traveling."

After leaving sweaty, crowded Indonesia this past winter—a vacation from what many would consider a lifelong vacation—he was able to rationally consider the prospect of a bike ride through Alaska and realized that below-freezing temperatures would make it nearly impossible, unless he waited until summer. Instead, he decided to begin on Vancouver Island and spend the next year surfing down the coast of the U.S. and Central and South America. For this next trip, he's opting to ride a motorbike, simply to increase the chances of scoring better surf. "When you're riding a bicycle in the middle of nowhere, you can't check the swell forecast and say, 'Oh, there's waves 300 miles away, I'll be there tomorrow,' because it takes three days to get there."

Along the way, he'll camp or stay with friends or strangers—another upside to traveling alone. Whether he'll make it to Chile or not depends on factors both in his control and out. "I can't ever say what I am planning on doing, because it changes all the time," he says. "All I know is that I'm pretty wave-hungry at the moment. And at the end of the day, I know that I'm just doing this for fun, so if I stop enjoying myself, I'll just go home."

The boys, moments after Brett Archibald was rescued from the open water. Photo: Tostee

The boys, moments after Brett Archibald was rescued from the open water. Photo: Tostee

By Jeff Mull

Alone in the dark of the night, Brett Archibald floated on his back, miles away from land. His skin was blistered, his body was tapped, and his will to live was slipping away. Ready to give in, he attempted to swallow the seawater that surrounded him, but his body rejected it. He'd been treading water alone for more than a day and he was running on fumes. He'd been brushed by a shark, stung by jellyfish, and had seagulls pick at his eyes, but he hadn't given up completely, yet.

Twenty eight hours earlier, Brett, 50, was onboard the Nagu Laut en route to the Mentawais for a surf trip. In the middle of the night, a storm had torn through the Mentawai Strait. At 3 a.m., feeling ill, Brett stumbled to the side of boat, vomited, passed out, and then fell overboard. He came to in the wake as the boat plowed onward. It wasn't until 8 a.m. that Brett's friends and the crew realized he'd gone missing.

The captain placed a distress call to all other vessels in the area and began retracing their steps. For the next 20 hours, scores of surf charter boats scoured the waters in search of Brett, to no avail. Brett's wife, Anita, set up a Facebook page back in South Africa detailing what had happened to her husband, encouraging friends to pray for him.

"I gave up out there eight times during the entire ordeal," Brett recalls, "but each time something incredible happened that energized me again." He hallucinated about the Virgin Mary, thought of his wife and family, and contemplated all that he had accomplished in his life and all that he hadn't. More than once, boats narrowly passed him by. Each time, the rough seas of the Indian Ocean cloaked his waving arms and muted his screams. At one point, a boat came within 500 meters of him, but then abruptly took a 90-degree turn back to sea.

"At that point, I gave up entirely," he says. "I exhaled all the air from my lungs, sunk a meter or so below the surface, and inhaled a lung full of seawater and waited to slide into unconsciousness. Then I changed my mind. I came out of the water like a jet-propelled engine and lay on the surface coughing and spluttering. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a black cross heading toward me. Another hallucination, I told myself. But it kept getting closer and closer and I suddenly realized it was the mast of a large yacht. It continued in my direction, but I was too exhausted to be energized. I knew it would turn away and leave me shattered and broken. And true to form, it turned left, but only slightly, and then continued course. I suddenly realized that if it stayed on that course and I put all my effort into it, I could intercept it at approximately 500 meters."

Brett put everything he had into the next few minutes. He swam because his life depended on it. He lifted his head and began to shout, "Hey! Hey! Hey!" A man on the bow of the boat turned toward Brett, raised his binoculars, and then signaled to the other crew members that he'd seen a man. After 28 and a half hours alone at sea, he was saved.

The boat that rescued Brett, the BarrenJoey, was an Australian surf charter vessel that happened to have a doctor on board who administered Brett an IV. Physically broken and emotionally shattered, Brett called his wife via a satellite phone to let her know he was alive.

In the wake of his near-death experience, you'd expect Brett to have checked into the nearest hospital and hurry home. But after just a day's rest, he chose to continue on with the rest of his trip. "I had to make my peace with the ocean, with God, and to assimilate and process the ordeal that I had just been through," he says. "Had I not stayed on and completed the trip, I truly believe I would now be in a loony bin talking to sharks, jellyfish, and seagulls. It was cathartic for me and something I just had to do for my own sanity."

Mike Parsons has seen his fair share of wipeouts, but he claims this one at SF's Ocean Beach was the worst. Photos: Rowedder

Mike Parsons has seen his fair share of wipeouts, but he claims this one was the worst. Photos: Rowedder

By Todd Prodanovich

On an unseasonably warm January day in San Francisco, all the elements of wind, swell, and sand had converged to turn Ocean Beach into the cold-water cousin of Puerto Escondido. The first surfers in the water, Mike Parsons and Taylor Knox, took turns scratching into solid 12-foot drainers on 8-foot guns for four hours straight. With enormous barrels held open by howling offshore winds, it was "as good as waves get," according to Parsons. But as perfect as they were, big, barreling waves have a knack for humbling the best of us. Even a man with a 77-foot wave on his resume isn't immune to being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

"I remember everything about that wave," says Parsons. "It was the third wave of the set and it looked perfect so I started paddling really hard. I thought I had it, but when I felt the wave lift me up I realized I didn't. I had too much momentum to pull back, so at the last second I said, 'Screw it, I'm going.'"

As Parsons rose to his feet, a battle commenced between the hard offshore winds and gravity. Eventually gravity won out and Parsons free-fell 10 feet from the lip into the trough, where the impact caused his legs to give out, sending him face first into the flats. Over the years, Parsons has taken more than his fair share of aquatic beatings—and often in waves much bigger than 10 feet—but on this particular wave, a far worse fate waited for him just below the surface.

"As soon as I hit the water, my body went numb and I was just thinking, 'Oh my God, I'm paralyzed,'" says Parsons. "I instantly knew I had broken my neck. When I got to the surface, I couldn't feel my left arm at all. It felt like my arm got ripped off my body, and I was tripping out looking at it just lying there next to me."

Parsons was in shock. He lay motionless, screaming for help while his flotation vest kept him above water. Ironically, Parsons believes the vest was one of the causes of the injury. "I had a paddle vest with a little bit of flotation on my chest, and more flotation on my back," says Parsons. "It doesn't allow you to penetrate the surface of the water, and because of the way it sat around my neck, it put my neck in a very vulnerable situation heading into such a violent wipeout."

As Parsons bobbed in the impact zone, another surfer spotted him, muscled him onto his board, and hauled him toward the shore. An ambulance arrived shortly thereafter and took him to the hospital. After a series of scans and x-rays, the doctors delivered the bad news: Parsons had a fractured C7, a partially collapsed disk at C5 and C6, torn ligaments at C4, a pinched nerve, and significant internal bleeding. His neck was so swollen from the trauma that swallowing food and drink was nearly impossible for the first week.

While it was a harrowing experience, Parsons dodged a bullet. The doctors explained that with careful rehabilitation, a lot of time, and a little luck, he would make a full recovery. Fast-forward four months and Parsons is back in the water. He's taking it easy, getting his sea legs back on his longboard, and warming up on some forgiving Trestles peaks. At this rate, it won't be long before Parsons can conceivably wax up his 8-foot gun and stroke into another bomb at some heaving beachbreak or menacing reef pass. But at a certain point the question stops being a matter of "can," but instead a matter of will.

"That ride really shook me up," says Parsons. "Not just physically, but mentally this was the worst wipeout I've ever had. The moment it happened, I was thinking I'd never surf again, and it was a wake up call. The doctors think I will make a full recovery, but I don't know if my spine will be as strong. I honestly don't know if I'll end up riding some of the waves I was riding before. If I told you anything else, it just wouldn't be true. I'll definitely pick and choose the types of waves I ride for awhile and work my way up to the point where I am sure that I can withstand a wipeout. But laying in the water unable to feel the left side of my body was terrifying—I don't ever want to hit the water that hard again."

Jon Hammar

Late one evening in Florida, Jon Hammar’s parents recieved an anonymous email with this photo of their son chained to his bed in a Mexican prison, the only proof that he was still alive.

By Josh T. Saunders

They'd each paid $700 for the '71 Winnebago. After some transmission work and a little elbow grease, the two Marine Corps vets loaded six surfboards and puttered out of Dade County in Florida, bound for Costa Rica. Jon Hammar and Ian McDonough had met in the service, and had gotten into surfing when they were stationed in North Carolina. "I met Ian, and we'd paddle out all the time, until it turned into an addiction," said Hammar. "And then whenever we weren't in country, we would do some surf recon for the holidays. We'd surf as much as possible between tours. Eventually, all I wanted to do after I got out of the military was surf."

Hammar returned to Florida after being honorably discharged from the Marine Corps for post-traumatic stress disorder. He was prescribed surfing as therapy; being in the water was his release. So he and McDonough laid out their plan to chase waves off the grid in Central America. In their RV, Hammar brought along his great-grandfather's shotgun, in case they needed it. It was an antique '63 .410 bore Sears & Roebuck. He was told by U.S. customs that with the proper paperwork, he'd be clear to bring the gun across the border.

It was early August, a month into their six-month itinerary, when they arrived at the border-crossing checkpoint in Brownsville, Texas. Under the impression that it was legal to bring his gun into Mexico, Hammar revealed to officials that he was carrying a weapon. Immediately, he was pulled from his vehicle and handcuffed. The gun's barrel, the Mexican authorities said, was one inch shy of the legal length. They commandeered the RV, seized everything they owned, sent McDonough back to the border, and locked Hammar in a notoriously dangerous prison known to have ties to local drug cartels.

The phone rang late one night at the Hammar family home back in Florida. When his mother Olivia answered, there was a ransom demand on the other end of the line with instructions laid out on how to send the money to get their son back. His folks contacted U.S. diplomats for help, who told them not to cooperate with the cartels. Hammar was meanwhile chained to his bed, alone in a cell in Mexican prison. Not even four years spent in Iraq and Afghanistan could have prepared him for what he went through while locked up abroad. Death threats, lack of sleep, food, and water. A constant state of fear. Four months of living in the dark, with no idea when it would end. In jail, he'd speak with other inmates about where he was headed before he was arrested. They'd tell him about the destination, describing it to him slowly in Spanish, about the waves, the coconuts, the girls, everything. For Hammar, it was as close as he got to the surf he was originally headed for.

It took months for the news to reach the surfing community and beyond, but eventually his story made national news. There was a federal petition gaining signatures to bring him home, and rallied support for his family stateside. Finally, after months of painstaking litigation, Hammar was released from his cell and back to his family in Florida just before Christmas. He came home dehydrated, sick, and malnourished, yet his first instinct was to get back in the water. After six days in the hospital, and a few more for recovery, he was back in the lineup.

In the weeks and months that followed, his supporters took turns welcoming him back, setting him up with new boards, and inviting him to their properties abroad. The last we heard from him, he was in Costa Rica, surfing the best waves of his life.